What is a camera?

Inside the Room, Han Village, China, 2005

It's a funny thing, this emphasis on the camera. Perhaps the correct emphasis, such that there is a correct thing, should be on the photograph? Or the film? Or the digital process? There's an old joke about a man who, on looking at a glorious temple, asks the carpenter what type of hammer he used.

Almost from birth, the people of so-called advanced societies are swayed to think of product. As they grow, they come to be called consumers.

The influence of commerce on perception is well understood. As is the late nineteenth century challenge of accurate shutter speed. Once tamed mechanically, and later electronically, the camera body becomes as fungible as a consumer. Who made it is unimportant. Yet the brands of the makers, curiously the same term used to describe the application of a burn mark on the arse of a cow, supercedes the reputation of the early innovators. The consumers are lead to think like cows driven to their daily milking. It is only nationalism whose giant label is slapped on the involuntary child that signals the frontier of the commoditisation of people.

But you, my intelligent and perceptive reader,  know the influence of the lens is far greater than the effect of the box it is attached to. It is interesting that the earliest of the the lens designers are still known today; Carl Zeiss, Leica, and Takumar. At least, looking into the perfect silvered mirror of hindsight, we can regard a certain past from an uncertain today. But what if we look forwards? In the future, lenses will be no more important than the Synchro-Compurs of yesteryear.

The famed Synchro-Compur shutter in a Rolleiflex TLR, once the world's most popular press camera.

There are three types of camera. The film camera is a simple lightproof box. With a shutter the camera exposes film to light at reliable time intervals. A variable hole, the aperture, open the sluice gate to photons in larger or smaller amounts. On a sunny day, the latter.

The digital camera is a light sensor. In the fashion in which it is formed, as a product to be sold to consumers who are socialised to be creatures of habit, we are constrained by previous history. Really, what use is ISO in the context of a digital camera other than to accommodate photographers who were born before the digital age? Granted, they are the people who buy cameras.

The new new image capture device aka camera is a light sensor and computational photography. Most photographs are taken with cameras built into cellphones. That is as much as the consumer needs to know. Yet beneath the archaic surface every image captured by a smartphone is summarised and that summary is sent back to massive data storage and manipulation engines.

"No camera at all - just mind power" is the long-term ideal camera of Maitani. It is based on the concept of detecting, measuring and recording the electrical circuitry of the human brain.

"While sitting in your study you may visualise a beautiful landscape : that is memory, or perhaps imagination. But no technology of today will allow us to record pictures by the same mechanism!"

Although his ideal camera may never be realized. He has not abandoned his dream. "The view of life should be an eternal one, for if we cease to look for progress then life has no meaning." 

Yoshihisa Maitani, designer of the Olympus Pen, OM1, and XA cameras.